Origins and History of Consciousness

by Adrienne Rich

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 331

Adrienne Rich’s poem "Origins and History of Consciousness" examines her relationship with poetry, lovers, and the women who came before her. This is a common theme in her work. In this poem, from the author’s perspective of being in her room, we get a unique look at the way her external surroundings influence her and her work.

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The poem begins with a description of the room:

Night-life. Letters, journals, bourbon

sloshed in the glass. Poems crucified on the wall,

dissected, their bird-wings severed

like trophies. No one lives in this room

without living through some kind of crisis.

She mentions her influences, the women who came before her, paving the way: “photographs of dead heroines.” She wants to connect with people through poetry and through touch.

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In part II, she writes about how easy it was to fall in love with a lover:

It was simple to meet you, simple to take your eyes

into mine, saying: these are eyes I have known

from the first . . .

She goes on to talk about how easy it is to connect lives and then how fragile that connection can be against the backdrop of real life, especially between two women at the time:

these two selves who walked half a lifetime untouching-

to wake to something deceptively simple: a glass

sweated with dew, a ring of the telephone, a scream

of someone beaten up far down in the street

causing each of us to listen to her own inward scream . . .

In part III, Rich writes about how trust is something that we move into slowly:

...Trusting, untrusting,

we lowered ourselves into this, let ourselves

downward hand over hand as on a rope that quivered

over the unsearched . . .

The relationship Rich has with her lover cannot be considered “life” because it must be kept secret:

But I can’t call it life until we start to move

beyond this secret circle of fire

where our bodies are giant shadows flung on a wall . . .

Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 640

“Origins and History of Consciousness,” as the title suggests, is an account of the poet’s search for what poetry means to her and how it is connected to personal issues in her life. Appearing in The Dream of a Common Language, one of Rich’s most critically acclaimed works, it represents an important summary of themes and concerns at the center of her work.

The first section consists of what appears to be a relatively straightforward description of a room, but it rapidly becomes clear that this description incorporates many symbolic layers. The blank walls, for example, represent the erasure of women writers from history, an absence of tradition that the woman poet must confront. The search for origins, and foremothers, that the poet undertakes also recalls the archaeological explorations of Diving into the Wreck. The social change movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s helped to create an atmosphere in which questioning the past and the need for change—both personal and political—were widely accepted.

Rich’s work echoed these concerns and gave poetic expression to ideas that many were struggling to articulate, both in Diving into the Wreck and in The Dream of a Common Language. In the latter collection, Rich understands that sexuality is only one of the ways women express a commitment to each other. (These ideas were later developed in her influential essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” first published in 1980.) The theme of a community of women began to figure more prominently in her work, along with peace, feminism, and antiracism. The three sections of the book, focusing on power, love, and the need to confront the immediate context, explore the dream, or ideal, of a community based on values of nurturance and care and mirror the concerns of the burgeoning women’s movement.

In “Origins and History of Consciousness,” from the first part, titled “Power,” the poet acknowledges that for her, the “true nature of poetry” is “the drive/ to connect/ The dream of a common language.” In the second section, the poet contrasts the simplicity of falling in love with the difficulty of integrating this private life into the public world of the surrounding city, an example of how Rich uses personal situations such as sexual orientation to draw larger connections. She continually emphasizes that various aspects of life cannot be kept separate but overflow into one another, just as the lines of her poem run on into one another.

In the third and final section, the poet names the problem as one of trust. Using an image of lowering herself on a rope, a reflection reminiscent of her earlier work “Diving into the Wreck,” the poet describes how she gradually explores the problem. Having gained an understanding of the situation (having explored its “origins and history”), the poet ends by stressing the need for public acknowledgment of those connections in order to reconcile the splits and forge a more holistic vision of life.

The poem uses experimental forms such as incomplete sentences and fragmented phrases to capture the difficulty of formulating the message. The descriptions of the room at the beginning of the poem retain a certain even structure; the punctuation, though minimal, lends coherence. As the poet delves further into her inner consciousness, however, the poem becomes more fragmented. The lines are more varied in length, greater use is made of italics and dashes (the characteristic punctuation of Emily Dickinson, who figures so frequently in Rich’s work), and imagery is accumulated without an attempt to impose order as a means of conveying the dreamlike state of the poet. Rich uses both striking poetic imagery and prosaic language inspired by her surroundings in New York City to blend a dreamlike poetic vision with the everyday reality, a fusion that represents in the poem the integration she seeks in life.

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